I’ve got a problem: 95% of the new songs I hear from the rock/pop world sound incredibly bland. Uninspired. Turn on the radio to check out some current music. Turn it off again. More Adele/Amy Winehouse/Kate Bush wannabes or Mumford & Sons knock-offs with those annoying ‘whoa-oh-oh’ bits. Or twee, fluffy singer-songwriters who sound like they’re auditioning for an Innocent ad campaign.
Natasha Khan AKA Bat For Lashes sounded off in The Sunday Times recently: ‘Music has been in decline since the 1980s or 1990s. There’s so much drivel to wade through, it’s overwhelming.’ Donald Fagen of Steely Dan said something similar in a Rolling Stone diary entry, identifying the young acts who shared his stage at the Coachella Festival last year as ‘in the circa 1965 Bob Dylanesque mode, minus genius or anything like that.’
But maybe a quick way of explaining the main problem with modern pop and rock music would be: lack of musicianship (jazz, metal and prog seem to have gone the other way, becoming way too technical). Of course I’m not claiming that being a good musician is essential to the creation of good music. But it doesn’t hurt.
Musicians in the pop/rock world these days seem to lack feel. Mostly they don’t even really have a style. Bands seldom get beyond loud/quiet dynamics and don’t groove particularly well together. Many musicians, especially drummers, have monstrous techniques, honed in their music rooms and demonstrated on YouTube – but they don’t play particularly well with other people and/or don’t contribute to the songwriting.
In the 1980s, we were spoilt for virtuoso players who existed only within bands. Where’s this generation’s Johnny Marr, Robert Cray, Mark King, Eddie Van Halen, Mick Karn, Robin Guthrie, Stewart Copeland, Chas Jankel, Tom Verlaine, Francis Dunnery, Vernon Reid, Reeves Gabrels? (Suggestions please…but I guess Matt Bellamy from Muse might just scrape into that company…) Or even Will Sergeant, Edge, Charlie Burchill or John McGeoch? Where are the great musicians who just happen to play in a band?
Then there’s the dearth of quality songwriting. These days, the world is full of songs that just about ‘work’. I mean, they sound like songs, have some kind of structure and the semblance of a melody. But you seldom hear much evidence of craft, magic, mystique, a lyric that jumps out at you or a chord change that pulls the rug from under your feet. These songs mostly go in one ear and out the other, not having any kind of hook, groove or melodic/lyrical grace note.
Part of the problem is that few of the current crop of songwriters sound like they have studied harmony to any extent. They’re still rigidly locked in to the kinds of simple major and minor chords which started to sound stale in the early ’70s.
In the pop world, Amy Winehouse was a big exception to this. She did her homework and her influences reached back before 1965. Her songs unleashed a blizzard of 6th, 7th, 9th and 11th chords which lend them a freshness despite many listens. Those sorts of chords would scream ‘jazz’ to most modern musicians, and thereby turn them off instantly, but it’s a snobbish attitude. Jazz harmony was always a big part of pop until about 30 years ago.
Another route out of the boredom might be embracing the kinds of great melodic and harmonic strides made by the likes of Joni Mitchell and John Martyn. By the early ’70s, both were quoted as saying that they were bored by standard guitar tuning, so they unlocked the instrument’s melodic potential by experimenting with drastic detuning, thereby increasing the range of their songwriting too. But these pioneering concepts have generally fallen on deaf ears. Maybe they were way ahead of their time (and, to be fair, neither exactly stormed the charts). You occasionally hear someone like Laura Marling using a non-standard tuning, but it’s seldom ear-bending, without enough harmonic movement.
And for all today’s supposed musical liberalism, where people are listening to their genre-less, colourblind, eclectic playlists and everyone is into everything, actually music has never been so divisive and ghettoized. Terrestrial TV music shows essentially stick to ‘edgy’ rock and singer-songwriters plus a bit of hip-hop or retro R’n’B/soul for the critics. If a jazz, fusion, funk, prog, metal, blues or roots musician gets on ‘Later…With Jools’, it’ll probably only be because of some kind of PR slant or book promotion.
It was different in the ’80s. You could turn on primetime telly and see great jazz players, rock players, funk players. Playing live. It seems to be different in America. There are still vestiges of respect for musicianship and craft. The drummers week on Letterman is just one of many examples – that could never have happened in Britain.
I’m glad I got into listening to/playing music in the late-’70s/early ‘80s because it was a time when bands produced great, loyal musicians, not a bunch of sessionheads (though yes, a lot of session musicians did great work in the era too). Say what you like about ABC, Japan, Madness, Light Of The World, Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Bow Wow Wow, Killing Joke, Simple Minds, Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Aswad, UB40, Scritti Politti, Talking Heads, Level 42, Aztec Camera, The Associates, Propaganda and even Duran Duran, but they all had good, easily identifiable players in their ranks who also contributed to the songwriting.
Anyway, that’s my two pennies’ worth. Next time: some jokes.